Just so our readers don't think we're single minded when it comes to gaming, every now and then, we decide to branch out a little bit in our publications. Now, we're not going to start getting political or philosophical on you, but I thought it would be a nice little change of pace to discuss some tech and gadgetry in this space, so without further ado, we give you ten awesome technologies with awful first generation iterations.
When it comes to technology, being an early adopter is a precipitous proposition at best. There's a certain satisfaction at being the only one on the block with the newest and hottest gadget, but technology is a fluid thing. Advances are made, features are added, and prices go down. Next thing you know, that thousand dollar gadget you were so proud of is on sale at a grocery store for a quarter of the price, with more features and better reliability than the model you're stuck with. The following list represents ten of the greatest consumer technologies in our society with rather rocky beginnings. Pity yourself if you adopted these technologies in their infancy.
If you're reading this, chances are good that if you don't own an iPod yourself, you know at least a dozen other people who do. Rewind to 2001, and owning an iPod didn't hold nearly the same level of hipster chic that it does today. The first generation iPod bears little resemblance to the spiffy little devices you see at bus stops everywhere. First generation iPods didn't support USB (they charged and transferred via the practically defunct FireWire standard), featured a monochrome LCD, 5 GB of storage, and poor 10 hour battery life, all for only $399 USD. Also, forget about iTunes with the first gen iPod, as it came bundled with clunky Musicmatch software.
Take a look in your pocket. Chances are good that you have a device in there capable of sending text messages wirelessly, has a camera and a nice colour screen, and reliably makes phone calls in a wide calling area of coverage. That's to say nothing of all the bells and whistles that populate today's modern smart phones. However, if you had a cell phone in the late eighties or early nineties, you weren't there for style. Enter the Motorola Dynatac 8000X, a massive brick of a phone with a tiny screen to display numbers only, poor network coverage (not the fault of the phone, but primitive networks), a prohibitive $4000 USD price tag, and one hour of talk time which then required a ten hour charge. Still, it was a huge step up from car phones that were permanently installed on dashboards. Popular culture has lovingly dubbed these unwieldy pioneers the "Zack Morris Phone," after the character on the early nineties sitcom Saved by the Bell.
Touch screen organizers
If you find yourself with a touch screen organizer like an iPhone or any other touch screen smart phone, consider yourself lucky you weren't in Apple's target demographic for the Newton in the mid nineties. While the device had a lot of cool applications for a portable device at the time such as a calendar, contact list, synchronization abilities with a home PC, and the ability to read and edit a variety of word files, it was also an unwieldy monstrosity that really strained the whole pocket PC designation. The device was roughly the size of a VHS tape at 4.5 X 7 inches, and weighed almost a pound. The LCD was also not backlit and featured lousy contrast. One of its most hyped features was the handwriting recognition software Inkwell, which barely worked. Inkwell's lousiness was immortalised in an episode of The Simpsons in which bully Jimbo writes in his Newton "Beat up Martin", only to have it come back "Eat up Martha."
It seems funny now that the audio cassette has pretty much bit the dust. Not so long ago, how revolutionary they must have seemed. Until the advent of digital music players and recorders, analog tapes were the only real way to record, store, and most importantly, re-record sound. Going even further back than the standard audio cassette, was the 8 track. 8 track tapes were endless loop tapes (a technology that is still used in many film projectors today), that were very popular in American cars from the late sixties to the late seventies. While it had some advantages of the common tape like not having to flip the tape over to hear more, it was severely limited by its capacity (roughly 46 minutes, or 11.5 minutes per track) and technical foibles. Unlike common tapes, 8 tracks relied on a moving head to read each individual track, meaning that when each track ended, you'd hear a loud mechanical click. Once the head inevitably got misaligned, the player would actually play two tracks at once. Oh, and you couldn't rewind the tapes either.
While DivX is widely known today as a digital codec for video, its roots are actually as a competitor to DVDs. If you thought HD DVD was a bad idea, get a load of Circuit City's botched attempt at a format. The idea was that you would head into your local Circuit City, buy a DivX disc for around 4$, and then you'd be able to watch it for a 48 hour period, upon after which the disc would lock. If you wanted to watch it again, you could pay a continuation fee to unlock the disc for another 48 hour period, or pay around the same amount as a DVD to upgrade the disc to a DivX silver disc. All this was monitored through a dialup modem built into the machine that would phone home to a remote server. Also, forget about things like special features, widescreen, and digital surround sound, all standard features on regular DVDs. Despite this, DivX managed to secure the exclusive rights to films from DreamWorks, 20th Century Fox, and Paramount Pictures. Fortunately customers weren't suckered in, and DivX was discontinued in 1999, and the servers cut off of 2001. The debacle was one of many missteps that caused Circuit City to haemorrhage money and eventually close all their doors last year.
With all the tiny netbooks and sleek gaming laptops populating school libraries and coffee shops, it's hard to fathom how far portable computing has come in 20 years. One of the earliest laptops (to pick on Apple once more) was the Macintosh Portable, which severely stretched the term. The Portable featured a black and white active matrix display, full keyboard, and a track ball. Unlike today's laptops, the screen and the keyboard took up only about half the real estate, with the components and motherboard housed in the back portion. This resulted in a beast of a computer that was over four inches thick, and weighed over 15 pounds thanks to the low power lead acid batteries that were nearly impossible to replace. The computer also couldn't run unless the batteries were charged, so using the computer through AC power was not an option much of the time. With a majestic 16 MHz processor and 1 MB of RAM, it was also woefully underpowered, even in 1989. All of the back pain in the world couldn't offset the $6,500 price tag either.
For some of the best gaming experiences possible today, look no further than the Xbox 360. The machine today is a media centre power house, with the ability to play high definition games online or off, stream video content from a home PC or the web, and play music from any mp3 player. However, if you were one of the souls who invested in the machine in its early life span, you were probably beset with a bevy of hardware problems that undermined all the wonderful software it was capable of running. Beyond the overheating problems and the dreaded Red Ring of Death, early Xbox 360 consoles also had DVD drive issues which would chew through discs and cause loads of disc read errors. Early models also didn't have an HDMI port, forcing most users to rely on 1080i resolution component cables instead. While Microsoft has fixed most of the early issues with the machine, it's been a long slog through many customer service calls about three flashing red lights.
While many people have horror stories about printers failing or running out of ink at inopportune times, it's undeniable that printers have come a long way. Modern printers can print phenomenal photos, dozens of pages per minute, and do it all through a wireless network. It's a far cry from early Dot Matrix printers. Unlike the inkjet and laser printers that are common today, Dot Matrix printers were much closer to type writers. The printers would feature a head that moved back and forth, literally pressing wet ink stamps onto a sheet of paper, comprised entirely of large dots. Each character was literally impressed one line of dots at a time, meaning that printing times took an eternity. The machines were also extremely noisy. Many early models also required specialised paper that featured removable strips with holes imprinted, so the printer could grab each sheet and move it through the machine. Each sheet was attached through perforated lines as well. Forget about fancy fonts or even colour, just having a text document in the standard dot matrix font was good enough for users in the seventies and eighties.
Optical video discs
If you're taking in your entertainment from a physical medium, chances are good that you're using an optical medium to do so, be it DVD, Blu-ray, or even UMD discs for the PSP. While early DVDs lacked anamorphic widescreen, digital audio or even chapter selections, they were miles ahead of laserdiscs. While laserdisc achieved a certain popularity with high end technophiles of the eighties and early nineties, the format was besieged with quirks and annoyances that even VHS users didn't have to deal with. Laserdiscs were giant optical discs 30 cm in diameter, comparable in size to full sized vinyl records, but weighing significantly more. Despite their gargantuan size, each side of the disc could only house an average of around 60 minutes of video with analog sound, and even less if the film came with digital surround sound. This meant that if the film was longer than two hours, users would actually have to flip and change discs several times throughout the movie. At least the picture quality was a noticeable step up from VHS or Betamax, with twice as many lines of horizontal resolution.
No, we're not referring the ugly original fat model, with its lousy battery life, dull screens, and hideous design. Before there was the DS, PSP, or even the Game Boy, there was the Game and Watch. Nintendo's early foray into handheld gaming actually precluded their release of even the original Famicom (known as the NES in North America). Designed by Nintendo guru Gunpei Yokoi, who would design games like Metroid and the Game Boy hardware, the Game and Watch line was a collection of primitive LCD games, where sprites could only appear in predetermined spots on the screen, much like the Tiger Telematics games of the late eightiess. Running off a pair of button cell batteries, some Game and Watch units featured a clam shell design with two screens, an obvious visual precursor to the modern DS. The systems featured a watch and a calculator as well as two versions of the same game, usually labelled "game A", and a harder version called "game B". Many popular titles such as Donkey Kong and Super Mario Bros. were released, but they were primitive far cries from the fully fledged versions that appeared in arcades and on the Famicom.
Just think, in 20 years, we'll be looking back at our PlayStation 3's, iPhones, Blackberries, and digital cameras, simply thinking: "People at the turn of the millennium were so primitive and easily amused." It's inevitable, so let your mind wander about the possibilities that the future may bring, but at the same time, thank your lucky stars that you're not printing a dot matrix document while listening to your 8 track tape and playing on your Nintendo Game and Watch.